Safe Air

by Mike Wilson

Gate Agent Alvin Merriweather’s voice was as smooth as a milkshake pouring through the public address system, like Morgan Freeman, but not as deep.

“Bigfoot, please report to the podium. Passenger Bigfoot.”

Alvin scanned the waiting area of gate B34. Passengers were studying their phones, staring into space with anxious expressions, or minding restless children. A woman in a business suit typed furiously on a device in her lap, putting out a fire or setting one, before embarking to her final destination for more important business or to escape business entirely on the beaches of South Florida. But a few caught the Bigfoot reference. They looked up at Alvin. He grinned. They realized it was a joke and grinned back.

For nearly twenty years, Gate B34 had been Alvin’s. He’d fashioned it into an oasis for air travelers. A bowl of candy or a rack of snacks. Free newspapers or magazines to read while you waited for your plane to begin boarding. All out of his own pocket. Booking snafu or flight delay? Alvin was quick to comp a ticket or spend Safe Air’s money if that’s what it took to make the customer happy. He was the Ellen Degeneres of gate agents.  Make everyone’s trip a happy trip. That was his credo. And what made Alvin’s departure gate distinctive, indeed famous, was his schtick.

“We are now boarding those passengers needing special assistance,” he said, leaning into the microphone so he could make his voice soft and breathy but still loud enough to be heard.  “Speaking of special assistance, does anyone know how to fly a plane? The pilot says he doesn’t.”

Most of them looked up, alarmed. Then they saw Alvin’s grin and the twinkle in his eye. He laughed and reassured them, reciting the pilot’s experience and safety awards.

“Just seeing if anyone is awake out there.”

His act had started by accident. One day, while boarding the many levels of Safe Air membership – the Gold, the Silver, the Platinum, on and on – he realized that all of it was just a caste system airline executives thought up to make money, so the Platinums could think they were better than the Golds, that Zone 1 was better than Zone 2, and that Zone 4 people were untouchables, lucky to be riding with humans instead of in the baggage compartment in the belly of the plane. The distinctions not only were absurd, they were hurtful. We’re all just passengers on the same plane. So, he began making up new categories. The Titanium Club. The Rubidium Club. Then he went through all the gemstones he could think of.

His co-workers had freaked, worried that Alvin had lost his mind, wondering whether to call the supervisor. But the passengers in the gate waiting area got it. They were laughing. Even the Zone 1 people. At the end of Alvin’s rant, everyone applauded. It had been amazing. And eye-opening.

“Now boarding Zone 1.”

Alvin had realized that every person was equally valuable and unconditionally deserved happiness. The other thing he’d realized was that laughter made people happy and laughter was free, so everyone could afford it. Alvin developed a body of material, like a nightclub comic, and worked his act every time a flight boarded, but not overdoing it – you still had to get the passengers on the plane.

Everyone in the industry knew about Alvin’s act. A website on air travel trivia had a page dedicated to Alvin with funny stories and some of his bits. A local TV station had profiled him, complete with testimonials from satisfied passengers. Safe Air loved it, because it made them look good, as if a corporation had feelings.

“Now boarding Zone 4. Hic –“

Nelly, who was scanning the boarding passes, grinned at him, thinking this was Alvin’s hiccup routine. But she was wrong. Alvin really had the hiccups. The phone line lit up. Alvin lifted the handset to his ear.

“Hic… hello, gate B34.”

“Alvin, this is Theo.”

Theo was Alvin’s wife. Her phoning him at work was not the norm. 

“Is everything okay?” he asked. “Hic…. Is Simone okay?”

Simone, their daughter, was in her first year of college, two hours away in a dorm.

“Simone’s fine,” Theo said.

“Hic…”

Silence. He waited for her to tell him why she’d phoned. More silence.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I won’t be home tonight,” she said. “I found an apartment, but I have to move in today.”

“An apartment?”

More silence.

“I didn’t want to tell you like this,” she said. “I was going to write a letter and leave it on the kitchen table, but I didn’t know what to write.”

“A letter?”

“I’m leaving you, Alvin. I’ve found someone.”

Long silence.

“There’s leftover lasagna in the fridge.”

“Okay,” he said.

“You can keep Co-pilot,” Theo said. “I changed the litter box.”

“Okay.”

“Goodbye, Alvin.”

Click. Alvin returned the handset to the phone base. He couldn’t think about this now. He scanned the waiting area of gate B34. All of the passengers had boarded and in minutes they would lift off on a Safe Air flight to Atlanta. In Atlanta, most of them would board another Safe Air flight that would take them to their final destination. The only stressful part would be making the connection in Atlanta – searching the departure board for the fated time and gate of their next flight, riding the plane train to get there, looking at their watches and hoping they were headed to the right place and wouldn’t be late. The Atlanta airport could be a booger.

“Alvin?”

Alvin realized that he’d been staring off into space. He looked at Nelly.

 “Do you care if I take lunch now?” she asked.

“The next flight is small,” he said. “I can handle it alone.”

 “Hey, your hiccups are gone,” Nelly said. “I thought I was going to have to sneak up and scare you. How’d you get rid of them?”

                                                #

Alvin spooned leftover lasagna onto a plate, put it in the microwave, punched in the time, then pressed start. He felt Co-pilot curling against his leg. Alvin picked her up and rubbed her ears and face while the lasagna twirled and time ticked down. When the microwave beeped, he put Co-pilot down and took the plate out, using a dish towel as a potholder. After the lasagna cooled, he would give Co-pilot a bite and hope she didn’t throw up, but even if she did, he wouldn’t mind cleaning it up because lasagna made Co-pilot happy.

 Alvin ate his dinner on a tray in front of the TV and watched Wheel of Fortune. Theo used to watch with him, but during the past year she’d disappeared to another room after dinner. Alvin liked to play along with the contestants. Tonight he just couldn’t. Even Vanna White’s cheery smile didn’t lift his spirits. He rinsed off his plate and put it in the dishwasher, thinking it would take a lot longer to make a load with Theo gone. He returned to the TV and tried to get into Jeopardy! but the questions all seemed harder tonight. Finally, he gave up, turning off the TV and opening his laptop.

He pulled up his fan page on social media, a sure-fire mood-lifter, and Co-pilot jumped into his lap and settled in. Alvin posted regularly. Tonight, he started with some travel trivia. What three countries have the most airports?  What is the busiest airport in China? He would post the answers tomorrow night. Then he uploaded the next segment of his three-part series on traveling with emotional support animals. Part 2: Have the Documentation. Most bad outcomes on domestic flights could be avoided if passengers brought a note from a licensed medical professional documenting the condition for which the support animal was required, plus certification from a vet that the animal was healthy and had rabies and DPT vaccinations. Then he went through comments posted about his essay on social implications of air travel and the mutual trust it entailed. He responded to each one, high-fiving the positives and offering hope to the negatives – he considered it a continuation of his work at Gate B-34 – and

ended every post with his credo – Make everyone’s trip a happy trip. It was the only way to travel.

But as he sat in front of the screen with a cat in his lap who loved him, Alvin was crying. Theo was gone. Closets and dresser drawers were emptied. So was their savings account. There’d been no flight board with a departure time, just that phone call. Alvin didn’t get it. 

“Come on, Co-pilot,” he said, wiping his eyes and picking her up. “Let’s fly off to dreamland.”

                                                #

Alvin hadn’t heard from Theo since the phone call, though it had been weeks. He assumed he would get divorce papers in the mail at some point. He clicked on the microphone.

“Now boarding Sapphire Club members. Please tell the flight attendant if you would like to sit in the pilot’s lap and steer the plane.” It was early, so there weren’t many passengers in the waiting area, but those who were looked up. Alvin grinned, and they grinned back.

Simone wanted her own place, so Alvin had leased an apartment for her near the university and he was paying the rent. He’d asked Simone if she was okay, and she’d asked if he was okay, and they’d both said yes, and it was starting to seem true. Alvin had bought Co-pilot a new collar and she strutted around in it like a queen. Life went on.

Alvin activated his iPhone and pulled up Amazon. He would surprise Simone with a study lamp for her new apartment. Good light was important, whether you were reading a physical book or a computer screen. He scrolled through offerings in a price range that was reasonable, hurrying to finish before boarding began. Just as he tapped Place your order he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Nelly.

“Is that your wife in the back row?”  

Alvin looked. Nelly was right – there was Theo in a sundress, a small blue suitcase at her feet. Alvin remembered buying that suitcase. Beside her was a man wearing a sport coat, no tie. I hope she remembered to use our Safe Air employee family discount. She flies free and can book a discounted guest ticket for him. Plus, Safe Air family members receive substantial discounts on airport car rentals with all major companies.

Theo must have felt Alvin’s gaze because she glanced up and, seeing him, her jaw dropped. She looked at her boarding pass, looked at the gate number, looked at her boarding pass again. How could she not know that B-34 was Alvin’s gate? Theo touched her man’s arm and said something. They both looked at Alvin. Alvin waved. They ignored him, looked at the boarding pass, looked at the gate number, looked at the boarding pass. No matter how many times they looked, the result was the same.

Alvin picked up the microphone and clicked it on.

“Now boarding, my wife who left me and the man she left me for, my wife who left me and the man she left me for.”

The passengers in the waiting area chuckled. Alvin clicked the microphone off and motioned Theo and her man to the ticket scanner. Theo glared at Alvin but stood and picked up her small suitcase. The man followed. He was carrying a laptop computer.

Theo started to hand Alvin her boarding pass, then reached to her left hand, slipped off her wedding ring, and thrust it at Alvin along with her pass. Behind the daggers in Theo’s eyes, Alvin saw shame. He didn’t want her to feel shame. He wanted her to be happy. He scanned Theo’s pass, took off his own wedding ring, and returned the ring to her along with her pass. Theo picked up her suitcase and turned to the boarding ramp. 

“Wait, Theo,” he said.

She stopped, turned back, and met Alvin’s eyes. She seemed to be steeling herself to absorb a blow.

“Your bag is too big for the overhead bin,” he said.

He took it from her.

“Let me check it through for you,” he said, marking the bag and putting it aside. “No charge.”

Theo’s man stepped up to the scanner. He handed Alvin his boarding pass and

looked away. Alvin scanned the pass and returned it.

            “When you board the plane,” Alvin said, “just stow that laptop under the passenger seat in front of you before take-off. Thank you for flying Safe Air.”

Alvin watched Theo and her man disappear down the passenger boarding bridge that led to the waiting plane. He hoped there was no rough air during the flight. When Theo and her man arrived in Atlanta, they would board another Safe Air flight that would take them to their final destination. The stressful part would be making that connection in Atlanta –  searching the departure board for the fated time and gate of their next flight, riding the plane train to get there, looking at their watches and hoping they were headed to the right place and wouldn’t be late. The Atlanta airport could be a booger. Alvin turned toward the passengers in the waiting area and clicked the microphone back on.

            “Now boarding passengers needing special assistance. If you need special assistance, please come forward at this time for boarding.”



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